MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A proposal to ban anything but hands-free cellphone use while driving made it through another round at the State Capitol Friday afternoon.
Several families who have lost loved ones to distracted driving spoke to a room of lawmakers about the hundreds of deaths per year in Minnesota they say are preventable.
Greg Tikalsky’s 79-year-old father, Joe, walked to his mailbox in New Prague and was hit and killed by a distracted driver in October of 2015.
“One of the ironies of the tragedy with Dad is that he worked for nearly 50 years as a school bus driver and delivered nearly 100 children to and from school safely every day,” Tikalsky said.
The Tikalsky family was among several telling stories of loved ones lost to distracted drivers.
“We have an epidemic,” Tikalsky said.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is sponsoring the bill, which also has the support of the Minnesota State Patrol’s chief. Col. Matt Langer testified that the current law banning texting and driving is too difficult to enforce because there are ways for drivers to get around it if pulled over.
“Enforcement of the law for distracted driving will be much simpler,” said Rep. Mark Uglem (R-Champlin). “If you have a phone in your hand while you’re driving in traffic, you will be subject to enforcement.”
While critics suggest a hands-free cellphone law won’t make a difference, supporters site an 18-percent increase in distracted driving deaths in Minnesota from 2014 to 2015. They are saying something needs to change.
“Today we’re at a crossroad,” Tikalsky said. “We have an opportunity to begin to make Minnesota roads safer for all of us.”
There is still a long way to go for this bill, which now heads to Public Safety Committee. Some of the wording may be changed to be a little more specific. On Friday, supporters used the example of simply popping in one earbud being in compliance, but not two earbuds, which would be illegal and distracting.
The point they are trying to make is that no one has to get a new phone or car to be in full compliance.
So far, the penalties defined in the bill are no harsher than the current ones for distracted driving.
Many of the families of victims say they hope the penalties will eventually be as harsh as drinking and driving. But this bill would be a good first step for the time being.